Thursday, April 23, 2020

Little Fires Everywhere: a very short review

Little Fires Everywhere is everywhere, nowadays: it's been on the top of the bestseller lists for more than a year, it's been translated into many other languages, it's been adapted into a top-rated streaming TV series, it's in every bookstore.

OK, I don't know about the bookstore part, I have been remiss in my visits to the bookstores.

I don't know if I'm going to watch the TV series, but I very much liked reading Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere

One of my reactions to reading Little Fires Everywhere was that it seemed like it was two different books.

At the start, Ng displays a graceful touch, gently and fully immersing us in the lives of a collection of related families in the town of Shaker Heights, Ohio (an upscale suburb of Cleveland):

life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lay within.
For reasons I don't really understand, the story is set about 25 years ago, during the mid 1990's. I suspect that this is because Ng herself was a certain age at that time, and finds it easiest to write about the lives and thoughts and emotions of teenagers in a setting that matches the time and place when she herself was of that age.

Whatever, I think it doesn't matter. What does matter is that Ng nails it, and within just a few pages we are flying along, becoming enmeshed in all these separate-but-intertwined stories, feeling the feelings and seeing the sights of all the various people in the story.

For example, a central theme of the book is the relationships between mothers and their children:

Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of her mind from the hospital stay -- everything she thought she'd forgotten -- her body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness or disaster. Was she just a poor speller, or was this a sign of mental impairment? Was her handwriting just messy, was she just bad at arithmetic, were her temper tantrums normal, or was it something worse? As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own. She had learned, with Izzy's birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course. Every time Mrs Richardson looked at Izzy, that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didn't know how to unclench.

Note, too, the references to biology: "her body", "a cellular level", "microscopic", "that feeling", "a muscle". This, also, is a central theme of the book: is it the shared genome that connects parents and children, or can this relationship be formed via other means (adoption, IVF, surrogate parents, etc.)?

Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, Ng changes approach. She decides, for whatever reason, to turn the book into something between a detective story, a police procedural, and a thriller. Characters become investigators, and start to accumulate and uncover clues. Interviews are held, records are searched, accusations are made, trials are convened.

I'm not sure if Ng was impatient, wanting to cover a lot of ground quickly, and finding herself unsure about how to gently coax the various background stories out of the various characters, or if she just felt that she wanted to control how we received the enormous volume of information that is revealed in the second half of the book.

Or maybe she wanted to make a deeper point, about "people" and about "truth":

"Being a reporter," Pearl said. "I mean, being a journalist. You get to find out everything. You get to tell people's stories and figure out the truth and write about it." She spoke with the earnestness that only a teenager could truly have. "You use words to change the world. I'd love to do that." She glanced up at Mrs Richardson, who for the first time realized how very big and sincere Pearl's eyes were. "Like you do. I'd love to do what you do."

Well, the characters in this book certainly use words to change the world, but it's more like the way that a tailor uses scissors to cut fabric: something new is revealed, but irrevocable alterations have been made; and who's to say whether the result of the tailoring is any more true than the original was?

But who can blame us for being curious?

All up and down the street the houses looked like any others -- but inside them were people who might be happy, or taking refuge, or steeling themselves to go out into the world, searching for something better. So many lives she would never know about, unfolding behind those doors.

Regardless, this middle section left me feeling a bit flat. I felt like everything was a bit forced, quite artificial, and nowhere near as elegant and personal as the early going.

The last quarter of the book is like a slow motion avalanche. We have omnisciently learned all the "truths", or at least all the "stories" have been told, and now we just plow ahead and watch what happens. Near the end, pretty much every page is a heart-breaking revelation of man's inhumanity to man, all of it with the best of intentions, all of it misguided, misdirected, misplaced. And each little tragedy is oh so unavoidable, like when you can see that somebody is about to walk right off a cliff in the fog and you know exactly what is going to occur but there's nothing you can do and you can't look away.

But in the end, Little Fires Everywhere is a surprisingly hopeful tragedy, because the deepest message of the book is that we each are who we choose to be. We make our own choices, we take our own paths, and we have one tool that is always available to use: choice.

And then she thought about the first day she'd met Mia, what Mia had asked her: What are you going to do about it? It was the first time Izzy had ever felt there was something she could do about anything. Now she remembered what Mia had said to her the last time they'd seen each other, the words that had been echoing through her head ever since: how sometimes you needed to start over from scratch. Scorched earth, she had said, and at that moment Izzy decided what she was going to do.
Little Fires Everywhere, though it has its mis-steps and its clumsiness and its sometimes heavy-handed moments, is a blazing fireball of a book, an eye-opening, stop and look at yourself mirror held up to each of us, and finishing it is like waking from a stupor and seeing everything anew.

I recommend Little Fires Everywhere to all.

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